Attempting Fairness Isn’t Fair – The Difference Between Policy and Process
5 January 2018 | 10:36 am
Treating all employees fairly with a specific policy sounds important, reasonable, and necessary. Fairness is important, correct? All managers should work to achieve it. Correct? Unfortunately, the concept of fairness is vague at best and misleading plus harmful to employee engagement at worst. Being fair depends on interpretation. Interpretation of a situation can create too much variation. Any attempt to be fair with all employees using policy alone will create unintended negative consequences.
When my daughter Emily was a junior in college she worked part time for a catering company. She served dinner to the elderly at a Senior Living facility. Her boss rarely saw her. He did little more than create the work schedule for the workers (including Emily). He never needed to be at the location because the students worked well as a team and needed little direction or supervision. The process for serving dinner was very predictable and relatively easy to learn and implement. Plus, the customers were very happy.
After working a year for this company Emily was scheduled for a raise. The company policy required employees be considered for a raise only after receiving a performance review. This policy was an attempt to treat all employees fairly and to ensure employees who receive a raise in fact deserve one. It sounds reasonable and necessary. However, there is a problem. The boss was rarely, if ever, available to observe her performance. He therefore had to guess. There was no predictable process in place to access Emily’s performance. The policy existed but there is no process to carry it out. Senior leadership wanted a fair policy for all employees. What they got instead was a great policy for damaging motivation.
The boss and Emily met. He rated her a 3.5 out of 4. He attempted to justify his rating. In this company’s performance management policy, the “1” rating is unsatisfactory and requires immediate dismissal; the “2” required immediate improvement with a performance plan; the “3” means “meets expectations”; and the “4” means “exceptional”. The boss explained that “no one ever” receives a “4” rating because he doesn’t believe in awarding a “4”. He explained, “everyone can improve and therefore the rating of exceptional is unreachable and unattainable”. The boss had his own interpretation of the policy. In other words, he had his own process and he was incapable of explaining it effectively without damage to my daughter’s engagement.
My daughter was disappointed in her rating because she had never missed a day of work scheduled, had filled in for other employees when they called in sick or needed an evening off multiple times, and the clients loved her. She continually received unsolicited accolades and even gifts from the seniors.
She decided to speak up, “How can you rate my performance, you are never here?” “That’s not true” he replied. “Occasionally I arrive at the end of the shift in time for me to see you mopping the floor.” She was not only disappointed but also appalled by his explanation. She was de-motivated and discouraged. All this unintended consequence because she was due a raise.
Policy alone cannot deliver fairness, nor can it deliver engagement. An event that was intended to increase engagement actually damaged it. Policies don’t deliver fairness, processes do. Without predictable processes, based on sound theory, fairness will be non-existent and engagement will be damaged.
While all employees need to understand policy it is not the policy alone that delivers the outcomes. It is the process. Employees also need to be treated as individuals. Their individual needs, characteristics, skills all need to be addressed to honor their unique make-up. The current performance appraisal process doesn’t deliver this (nor will it ever be able to do so in its current form). My daughter’s story is not uncommon. The typical performance review can create a disengaged employee even if it is a “good” review.
A process is needed that is both flexible and clear. Then the variation needs to be managed to achieve desired outcomes. Too often a leader “sends down” edicts to the masses and expects compliance. It just doesn’t work that way. Not in today’s knowledge economy where employee engagement is a strategic advantage. Policy is an unsophisticated and damaging way of achieving engagement and the results show it. The policy to conduct a performance review will not predictably deliver employee engagement even when the intentions are good.
Check out the interview on C-Suite Best Seller TV to learn more about how to stop leadership malpractice and replace the typical performance review: https://www.c-suitetv.com/video/best-seller-tv-wally-hauck-stop-the-leadership-malpractice/
Wally Hauck, PhD has a cure for the “deadly disease” known as the typical performance appraisal. Wally holds a doctorate in organizational leadership from Warren National University, a Master of Business Administration in finance from Iona College, and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. Wally is a Certified Speaking Professional or CSP. Wally has a passion for helping leaders let go of the old and embrace new thinking to improve leadership skills, employee engagement, and performance.